With Room 237, a deep dive into theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, writer-director-animator Rodney Ascher practically invented a new sub-genre of documentary: the fathoms-five-low inspection of fandom theories and nuttery. Tonally blending sympathetic dispassion and ever-so-slight amused mockery over a fast-shuffling montage of clips that just fit under the bar of fair use, Ascher’s technique created a fascinating brainstorm essay equally about cinema, spectatorship and the ability of works of art to generate interpretations well beyond the intentions of their makers.
His latest, A Glitch in the Matrix, pulls off the trick again, appropriately enough on an even bigger scale. This time the subject is simulation theory: the hypothesis that we are all living inside a synthetic world, like the human beings in The Matrix movies who are kept in pods, jacked into a giant supercomputer that injects a delusion straight into their brainstems. The film interviews individuals with differing opinions on simulation theory: some philosophers, some journalists and some likable kooks who fervently believe they’re living in a simulacrum, a few of whom appear disguised in digital avatar get-ups that add a bizarre comic layer.
Elsewhere there’s a long archive clip of the great sci-fi seer of simulation theory, Philip K Dick, giving a lecture in the 1970s on his theories about slippery realities that he channelled into his books The Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Ascher deploys abundant clips from the Matrix films and the many film adaptations of Dick’s fiction, but there’s plenty of his own original animation to illustrate some of the stories, including an account from one young man who killed his parents because he thought he was in the Matrix and nothing mattered. Parents of adolescent and younger kids will be interested to see Minecraft world-building is also in the mix, along with Plato’s allegory of the cave, the Mandela effect and Elon Musk talking about artificial intelligence.
What’s missing from this fecund brew, which you could imagine being twice as long, is any kind of judgment or analysis of the subjects. It’s up to the viewer to notice that some of the interviewees talk of deeply religious upbringings or receiving a diagnosis of schizophrenia, which might explain the roots of their beliefs. Or maybe they’re right and we are all living in a simulation.
• A Glitch in the Matrix is available on digital platforms from 5 February.